This month, specifically Nov. 11, marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Although the war is often dubbed “America’s forgotten war,” Chuck Freedman refuses to let his grandfather’s legacy be relegated to the footnotes of history.
“It is so important to not let this important history die,” Freedman said. For that reason, he planned a memorial service Nov. 10 in Tybee Island to honor those lost in a tragic 1918 sinking there of a ship whose troops his grandfather commanded. A substantial number of dead and survivors were from Georgia, Freedman said.
“I wanted to get the descendants of the HMS Otranto together to celebrate the 100th anniversary. I contacted John Calvert, a member of the Fort Screven American Legion Post 154, to help me plan the event.”
The HMS Otranto Memorial Service was held at Fort Screven Post Theater.
Freedman’s grandfather, Sam Levy, was very active in the Atlanta Jewish community, including helping to start the Southern Israelite, the predecessor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.
Born in 1895 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Levy moved to Atlanta when he was 10 years old. At an early age, Levy showed an unusual grit and toughness that prepared him for the trajectory of his remarkable life. He graduated from Boys High School in Atlanta, which became Henry W. Grady High School, and attended Georgia Tech as a co-op student.
“It was during my grandfather’s early college years that the Leo Frank trial took place. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head,” Freedman said.
On the day Frank was hanged, a fellow Georgia Tech classmate screamed, “They finally hanged that goddamn Jew!”
Levy graduated in 1917 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. That same year, he married his sweetheart, Annie. She attended Agnes Scott College and later co-founded the Atlanta Hadassah chapter.
Levy’s civilian accomplishments and newlywed life were short-lived.
In 1917, America entered the Great War and Levy was drafted, sent to Fort Screven on Tybee Island and became 2nd lieutenant of the Coastal Artillery Corps. In his book, “Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto,” R. Neil Scott explains that 2nd Lt. Levy was put in charge of the troops that boarded the ship. Scott described Levy as a near-perfect fit because of his technical expertise and leadership skills, which were essential to the war effort.
“My grandfather had to oversee all of these men. He was very young himself. They were seasick, and men were dying from influenza,” Freedman said. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic. It was the worst outbreak in recorded history, killing about 500 million people worldwide.
Tragically, while crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the Otranto ran into a horrible sea storm and another ship, the HMS Kashmir, crashed into it. The Otranto drifted and smashed into rocks and cliffs near the Scottish island of Islay. There were about 1,100 men on board, and about 470 of them drowned or were crushed against the rocks. Levy survived by jumping onto a British rescue destroyer called the HMS Mounsey. There was at least one other Jewish survivor on board, Pvt. Joseph Oppenheim.
“My grandfather spent the rest of the war recuperating. He never forgot about the friends he lost. It was hard for him. He would always suffer from back and neck problems because he hit the deck hard when he landed on the other ship,” Freedman said.
The Otranto tragedy was the single largest loss of troop transport lives during the war. About 130 doughboys from Georgia died. They were mainly from Screven and Berrien counties in South Georgia.
After the war, instead of being consumed by horrible memories, Levy decided to offer his life as a living memorial to his friends and to his community.
Among his claims to fame, he co-founded Georgia Tech’s Zeta chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity in 1920. Last month, Levy was among the original co-founders honored at the dedication of the chapter’s renovated house. He also co-founded Pryor Tire, creating the jingle, “Don’t cuss, phone us.” He started his own company, Sam Levy Tire Company, in downtown Atlanta and three other locations.
His civic and Jewish involvements included being a member and leader of such organizations as the Jewish War Veterans, American Legion, B’nai B’rith, Masons, Lions Club, Scottish Rite, The Temple, Ahavath Achim Synagogue, and the Jewish Don’t Worry Club, which he founded in Atlanta.
He actively supported Zionism in the 1920s and throughout his life, and served as president and other leadership roles for the United Palestine Appeal, the Jewish National Fund and the Atlanta Jewish Community Council.
In 1951, he joined a group of men who bought the Southern Israelite and became the newspaper’s treasurer.
“He was a visionary and knew how important it was for the Jewish community to have a news outlet to share their thoughts, accomplishments, ideas, and interests in local and international news,” Freedman said.
Levy was active in politics and supported Martin Luther King’s civil rights efforts. He later made a living in real estate.
Following his father’s lead, one of Levy’s three children, Bernie, secretly helped transport Jewish refugees on the ship, Hatikvah, to Israel after World War II. His efforts helped to form the Jewish state of Israel.
Levy’s grandson, son-in-law, and great grandson are also Georgia Tech graduates.
Throughout Levy’s life, he kept in contact with and personally arranged two reunions of Otranto survivors. In 1968, he read a prayer at one of the reunions, the first lines of which were: “O Lord, we bow our heads. To Thee we pray for those who’re here and those away.”
After Levy’s death, Freedman became interested in where his grandfather left off.
Last Saturday, Veterans Day weekend, Freedman; his wife, Kim; his aunt, Nathalie Levy Goodrich; and Pvt. Oppenheim’s grandson were among the 150 people in attendance at the Georgia memorial, including 31 descendants of Otranto survivors and casualties.
“The same prayer that my grandfather wrote and read at the 1968 reunion was read by Mayor Jason Buelterman,” Freedman said. The sentiments are still relevant today. The rest of the program included opening remarks by local historian Jan Will, a dramatic reading of Pvt. Joseph Hewell’s diary, the honor guard, and choral selections, including “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”